s m L

Chapter Four: Building Relationships


One of the objectives of school is to provide opportunities for all students to interact with and learn from their peers. Another is to increase students' awareness of individual differences and to develop positive and accepting attitudes towards each other. Neither of these outcomes can be realized simply by placing a student in a regular class. Efforts have to be made to ensure that positive social interaction occurs for all students.

We realize that we do not always have a clear set of steps, let alone ideas, of what we might do to teach the social skills that are needed to build relationships. As adults most of us look back on how we learned to "get along" and remember that it was a time of trial and error, with pain and pleasure, but it was incidentally learned, not intentionally taught, by our teachers. However, with the inclusion of students with developmental disability we see the need sometimes for a deliberate plan to teach children how to talk to each other, co-operate with each other, encourage each other and solve problems with each other. These teaching ideas can help teachers feel prepared and to have a framework for encouraging positive relationships among students. For children who have a limited vocabulary, for children who take longer to respond to questions, and for children who learn best from seeing actual situations and practicing the parts to play with others, these ideas offer concrete, practical suggestions for teaching what we have all found to be the most subtle, complex and rewarding skills of friendship. Here are some examples, (adapted from "Connecting Students" and developed by a number of educators) of ways to help all children "get along".

1. Facilitating Relationships

Teachers can help create welcoming environments by modelling and supporting students to value each other. This can be accomplished by :

  • presenting all students in the most positive light.
  • watching children to identify budding relationships and encourage them.
  • modeling concern and interest in all students.
  • structuring activities in which students feel free to talk about their feelings and relationships.
  • helping build a support group of friends for the child at risk. Such a network allows for genuine involvement of children in a friendship, caring and support role with their peers.
  • organizing cooperative learning groups for class activities.
  • promoting the inclusion of all students in extra-curricular clubs and high-status activities in school.
  • following through on school relationships by assisting parents to invite the child's friends over to their house.

Relationships cannot be forced or mandated. However, they can be nurtured and supported. In most cases it may be necessary to initially assist students to get to know each other.

2. Connecting Students

The Power of Friendship: Helping Friendships Grow

Look and listen for how friendships are developed:

  • 1.Review the student's day to see places friendships are developed.
  • 2.Determine how much facilitation will be needed.
  • 3.Decide the type(s) of facilitation, which will be supportive.
  • 4.Decide upon specific facilitation activities that will be helpful for the student.
  • 5.Identify the person(s) who could facilitate the relationship development.
  • 6.Explore ways to use regular curriculum to teach values about diversity, equality, and friendships.
  • 7.Use teaching techniques that promote cooperation and equality among students.
  • 8.Evaluate the situation frequently.
  • 9.Withdraw adult support as soon as possible.

3. Activities to Facilitate Friendships

  • 1. In class activities give the student valued roles by assigning her tasks that she can show-off her strengths, i.e. show a new student the way to the lunchroom.
  • 2. Have student's share their special interests and skills.
  • 3. Use strategies for dealing with a student's challenging behaviours which teach the class positive social or coping skills rather than singling out the student with disabilities.
  • 4. As the teacher, look for ways to demonstrate support strategies, answer questions, interpret communication, and address concerns.
  • 5. Assist students in understanding a student's communication by modeling and encouraging them to communicate with her directly.
  • 6. Make space for honest communication about concerns, fears, questions, and issues that arise.
  • 7. Hold regular class discussions about respect, relationships and belonging.
  • 8. Acknowledge positive efforts of adults and students.
  • 9. Facilitate opportunities for adults and students to get together to problem solve when challenges arise.
  • 10. Demonstrate the belief that problems can be solved and can create new opportunities for growth.
  • 11. Assist students and families to build friendships after school.

4. Circle of Friends

At times it may be necessary to develop more formal support networks around students to help them develop relationships with their peers. Forest and Lusthaus (1989) describe this as a "Circle of Friends". This is a formal group made up of the student with a disability, their peers and an adult facilitator. Students meet when needed to plan ways to include the student with a disability in the many social activities in the classroom and school. The focus may be to plan further activities together or ways to help the student to develop skills to increase their inclusion in the classroom. The role of the facilitator is to help the students generate strategies to help the student with a disability develop successful and lasting friendships. Forest cautions that "the circles...techniques may become routinized in schools and possibly detract from teachers' and students' efforts to develop more natural forms of support and friendships" ( cited in Biklen, 1992). Therefore, they should only be used if needed and discontinued as students become included by their peers in natural ways.

Some schools have found that "Circle of Friends" is not only helpful for students who are disabled but also helpful for regular students who are socially isolated. Janet South, shares a story that illustrates her part in creating a safe place for friends to begin to know each other.

Friendship Club

While working as a teacher's assistant in a grade five class I became aware of a girl who was lonely. She didn't seem to have any friends and was always in trouble with her peers. She had been in foster homes and had recently moved home with her mom. The teacher and I felt that the other girls in the class didn't know how to make friends with her.

A 'friendship club' was formed to help them learn about relationships and how to cope with behaviour that interfered with their friendships. There were eight girls and we would meet once a week or more if we thought it was necessary. As the facilitator I had to make sure that girls felt safe and that the opportunity was there for everyone to share and be listened to.

When there was a problem we would role play. The girls would show me the way it happened and then we would try an alternative way. Sometimes the words had to be given to them so they could practice and be successful. We talked a lot about what it meant to be a friend and what we could do at school to show a friendly caring attitude. One of the things the girls came up with was making cards for students that had missed more than three days. The cards would say they were missed and everyone looked forward to seeing them soon.

Jessica started feeling she belonged to a group that was doing nice things. The group were learning how to help her grow and interact positively with her peers. Social times were worked in to the club and many happy times were shared. Not all of Jessica's problems went away. However, she did have the chance to be part of a close group and have people really care about her.

How Parents Can Help Children Develop Relationships

To facilitate relationships outside of school it will be necessary for parents and educators to work together in a joint effort to help the relationships flourish beyond the classroom. The following are a number of strategies that teachers can share with parents to assist them in helping their child's relationships reach beyond the school and classroom.

  • 1. Help the child reach out to children she likes. This can be facilitated by making a class telephone book in September so children can call each other.
  • 2. It is important that a child with a developmental disability participate in community groups and activities that involve other neighbourhood children of the same age. This includes scouts, swimming, summer day camps, after-school clubs, church groups, etc.
  • 3. Be visible in your community by being involved and present with your child in neighbourhood and community activities.
  • 4. Encourage friendships by initiating ways for the children to connect outside of school. Invite kids over to watch a video, take several along to the park, the skating rink or on a family outing.
  • 5. Inviting a few children at a time helps to keep things moving.
  • 6. Support your child's friends in finding ways to help your child participate even if the participation is only partial.
  • 7. Once children are comfortable with each other - get out of the way.
  • 8. Assist your child to be similar to their age peers by noting the activities they enjoy, trends in clothing, music, hairstyle, etc.
  • 9. It is important that parents are in touch with parents of other children in the neighbourhood.
  • 10. Make your home a "magnet" where children like to come.
  • 11. Structure activities that promote equality.



All students who go to school together will share some experiences; recess, graduation ceremonies, spring concerts, camping in the rain, a joke played on a teacher, lunch in the cafeteria. When you are a student in a regular class, these experiences become the foundation on which relationships are built and sustained. The following stories remind us of how naturally new relationship might develop when you are just another student in a regular class.

The Phone Call

Perhaps one of the ways to indicate how inclusion can enrich a child's life is to point out that bonds of friendship begun and nurtured in the school atmosphere do spill over into "after-school" life. We saw this happen with our son Nigel when he was fully included in a regular grade one class. Nigel is totally blind and deaf, spastic quadriplegic, unable to swallow so eats through a gastrostomy tube and is unable to communicate through speech.

This however did not deter "Misty Angel Dawn", a friend from grade one, one evening at supper time, called and asked for Nigel. Nigel's brother and sister and my husband and I were floored. "What do we say - doesn't she realize Nigel doesn't talk? we mused. We told her Nigel was having supper and couldn't come to the phone so we took the message.

Afterward while thinking about this simple little incident. I couldn't help but be thankful and amazed - for you see this little girl saw past his disabilities and treated him like the friend he was.

TA Parent's Telling Story

In our neighbourhood lived two boys who would often get Dean, our son, into trouble. When he was outside they would encourage him to become involved in mischievous and sometimes potentially dangerous situations. Whenever Dean was outside I had to keep an eye out for these two boys so as to protect Dean from them.

One spring day after Dean had been attending his neighbourhood school for the better part of a year he was outside on his bike. This day these two boys had invented a new game to play with Dean. The boys had put a rope around Dean's neck as he sat on his bike facing one direction while the boys faced the other direction. When I realized these two boys were outside with Dean and before I could get out the door, Dean and the two boys were surrounded by eight other children from Dean's school. They were telling the two boys to leave Dean alone and that he was their friend.

From that day forward Dean has never been bothered by these two boys. I shudder to think what could have happened to Dean had he not had the opportunity to develop relationships with other children in the neighbourhood. This had happened because of his attending school at his neighbourhood school. When Dean was attending a special education class had only been known by name to other children in our neighbourhood. This experience helped teach Dean that some children are true friends that can be trusted.


A Father's Poem

The following poem has been written by Lawrence Cooper an educator and parent.

Smiling faces play the circle game.
Laughing and singing with pure undamaged voices,
Dancing and spinning on legs that thrive in sunshine and rain,
Drinking in the music of springtime with anxious ears,
Exploring the colored delights of rainbows with hungry eyes,
And sorting out the wonders of life with a clear mind.

Angela watches the game from a distance
just beyond the fingertips of the circle.
Her voice will not form the words she wishes to say,
her legs will not move with intended purpose
Her eyes see dimly only those images on the periphery
But she too drinks in the music of springtime
And her mind strives to sort out the confusions of life
As she perceives life from the edge of the circle.

Oh why can't they see her?
Why can't they take two steps back
To make the circle expand and grow,
Not to place her in the middle,
But just to make space
Where the game is being played.

Oh do not stop the singing and dancing and the laughing
Just reach out with a gentle hand and a friendly voice
And touch someone who hears and knows as you hear and know
And wants to be touched and loved as you are touched and loved.
As together you move and live and breathe in the circle game.

Back to top

Last Updated: December 3, 2021     |     Site design by Camryn Boechler